Plagiarism as Pedagogy

One of my best students was a plagiarizer. I felt stupid, when I found out—I had known her for two years, and I had worked with her intensively as her thesis adviser, for months. And I wasn’t the one who caught her, either, which was embarrassing because the poets and poems she plagiarized were ones I had told her, specifically, she should read. I had read some of the exact poems she’d ripped off, many times, myself; I had assigned them to her.

So I did everything you’re supposed to do in this situation. I contacted the Dean of Students office. I asked the student, via e-mail, to meet with me, telling her ahead of time that I believed she had committed plagiarism and that we needed to discuss if and how we’d move forward from here… it was very near the end of the semester, and her thesis was supposed to be finished in two weeks.

The Dean of Students office told me they couldn’t force my hand, but that if she had stolen whole sentences without any citation (which she had, in numerous, numerous instances) then there was little question: I should fail her.

Many of my colleagues told me the same: fail her. But that felt wrong to me. And here’s where it gets tricky… there are no official rules for citation in creative writing. Every poet seems to adopt his or her own rules, adding the epigraph “after So-and-So” or italicizing the stolen words, for instance. Moreover, some of our best-loved poems are actually in large part not the poet’s original work: The Waste Land rips off Shakespeare, Marvell, bar songs, ragtime music, etc., etc., but T. S. Eliot didn’t cite those sources, nor can most of us claim that we recognize every single tiny act of “plagiarism” in The Waste Land. But we don’t call Eliot a fraud or a criminal for that… we hail him as a genius, and his poem as the most important of Modernism.

Is it disingenuous to compare an undergrad to T. S. Eliot? Yes, but there were real similarities: every poem in this student’s thesis was more than half her own invention, and she almost never stole from a single source… she stole individual sentences, images, bits of syntax from multiple poets and then welded them together into a convincing new poem that neither felt like “the voice of,” nor addressed the same subjects as the poets from whom she stole.

This is why I hadn’t recognized the images and syntax as someone else’s: they didn’t sound like the poets from whom she stole, they sounded like her. In a way, I was more impressed with her as a writer when I realized what she’d done… I’m not sure I could have done it as convincingly myself. The poems suddenly felt like lies, yes, but they were also even more impressive works of craftsmanship than I had previously realized, as a result of their ability to lie convincingly. Her plagiarism felt like more of a skill than a crime.

Think about this for a minute: in most other art forms, straight-up plagiarism is encouraged early in an artist’s career! You don’t learn to play violin by writing your own songs, you learn it by playing, I dunno, Mozart or whatever. And when you learn to paint, you do it by copying the works of the masters, by learning what it feels like to paint a line like Picasso’s. It’s kind of peculiar, and maybe even reprehensible, that writers value individuality and uniqueness from day one. But I digress…

When I met with the student, she was apologetic and completely distraught. Yes, she admitted, she knew she had been treading on dangerous ground. Yes, she should have asked me whether what she was doing was unethical, and it was for risk of being condemned that she hadn’t. She had chosen to believe that I must have already known she was stealing lines and images from poets, and that I supported and endorsed it, even though she had suspected that I didn’t know (since I definitely hadn’t mentioned it), for months.

It was my fault…

This is when I realized the situation was my fault. Or partly, at least. I had first met the student in a course titled “Influence & Imitation,” which used the practice of copying or mimicking other poets as a means of finding one’s voice, and that took as its foundational premise that there is no such thing as individuality, that nobody is a beautiful or unique snowflake. When designing the course, I hadn’t thought about what might happen if these students continued to use imitation as a generative device beyond the classroom, into their theses, and into the world of publishing. Oops. I had helped to make the monster she’d sewn together.

But it was a beautiful monster. The poems had strengths one rarely sees in undergraduates: They felt whole. They felt unique. They felt like they were doing something that had never been done, in quite the same way, before. And they managed to juggle numerous voices and tones without seeming haphazardly glued together. Partially plagiarized or not, they were better than the vast majority of my other students’ poems.

Using plagiarism as a device, my student had figured out some of the hardest lessons for a young poet to learn… To imagine a good, startling image: that’s easy. To have a large vocabulary: that’s nothing too impressive. To know how to break a line, to understand simile or metaphor, to learn how to employ slant-rhyme or consonance… aren’t these small things compared to the ability to compose a poem that is rhetorically complete and convincing, that feels honest even in its artifice, and that can push a reader through a line of thought or feeling without making the reader feel that he or she has been pushed?

Maybe. Sometimes, I think, we teach our students how to make stunning puzzle pieces but we don’t instruct them on how to put the puzzle together… we leave them in the dark on that. And that’s irresponsible of us. By de-prioritizing freshman-level elements of craft, and allowing my students to steal from other poets in order to focus instead on the less nameable elements that make a poem feel convincing and complete, or that make a poetic persona feel like a real person, I had accidentally bred at least one (and maybe more) plagiarizers. The lesson had come at a huge cost that I had not foreseen, and that was now jeopardizing at least one student’s entire academic career. Shit.

Where do we draw the line?

In some ways it was neither my fault nor the student’s: it was an unfortunate side-effect of an art form that (thankfully!) refuses to make hard and fast rules about what is and isn’t acceptable. At the same time, though, it seems unfair to expect a nineteen- or twenty- or twenty-two-year-old poet to be able to intuit the boundary between “influence” and “plagiarism,” and then to punish them if they step over that line. Because you know what?, most of the significant art forms to have emerged in the past hundred years have deliberately blurred that line: collage, music sampling, erasure, even—I dunno—film itself, where the sheer diversity of people involved in making any film means authorial ownership is basically undefineable: there is no sole author of a film, there is just the film. And don’t we want our students to be participating in the cultural changes and phenomena that define art-making today, to participate in the complication of the notion of authorship?

We do. But how far is too far? When does influence become plagiarism? After five uncited words, verbatim? After stealing any images at all from another poet? But what about easy images: apples and wisteria and blue-skies-representing-freedom, for instance—are those any poet’s property? At what point does it become a purely subjective question of ethics? Many of us wouldn’t feel bad about stealing an image or a snippet of syntax from a dead and already-famous poet, but what about living famous poets? Or what about living non-famous poets? Can we agree that stealing even a few words from a poet who has not yet published a book is unethical? I ask these questions honestly, and with the expectation that many of us agree on the answers, but also to illustrate what a goddamn quagmire the question is.

Wait… what was I talking about?

Ugh, this blog post is a rambling mess… this essay started as a story, remember?

After our meeting, my student worked her ass off. She toiled, and combed through her entire thesis, trying to replace or skew the images, syntax, or diction she borrowed until it was no longer recognizable. She did it for hours, every day, for weeks in the hope that I might pass her with an acceptable grade. Was she always successful in steering clear of what most of us would consider plagiarism? No. Was she successful even two thirds of the time? Actually, no. Did I feel she truly understood, in the end, where the line was between influence and plagiarism; did I think she was standing at a safe distance from that line, even if she didn’t know exactly where it was? Not at all.

But no great poet has gotten great by being safe, or cautious. And hell, in case you couldn’t already tell, I don’t know exactly where the line between influence and plagiarism is either. Besides, we could all stand to be a little bit less possessive of our poems, and a little less sure of our sanctified, inimitable originalities. Once we put our poems in the world, in a very real way they no longer belong to us: They can drink. They can smoke. They can sleep with or break the hearts of or be used and fucked over by whomever they want; it’s not up to us.

This student had made me question the ethics of poetic “influence.” How many students can do that? More importantly, she had forced me to consider what the world might look like after the forms of sampling that permeate our culture have found their way into poetry… she had made me see the future. Those are rare things. They’re valuable things. So, screw it: I gave her an A.

 

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About Sean Bishop

Sean Bishop is a poet, editor, and graphic designer who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding editor of BETTER (bettermagazine.org) and the former managing editor of GULF COAST. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ALASKA QUARTERLY REVIEW, BAT CITY REVIEW, BOSTON REVIEW, CRAZYHORSE, JUBILAT, INDIANA REVIEW, PLOUGHSHARES, POETRY, and elsewhere.
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21 Responses to Plagiarism as Pedagogy

  1. I give Sean Bishop an F. He’s taught the the student that stealing is good, but what’s worse he’s taught her that not telling the truth is unimportant to good writing. So is murdering someone a good idea, if the story you tell about it is a best seller?

  2. Laurie says:

    As a writer of fiction, I think not telling the truth is pretty great. I think inventing truth out of ink and paper is even better. Poets do this, too. Even nonfiction writers must skew and reclaim “the truth.”

  3. Jane Hancock says:

    I love this essay. I will be sharing it with all my students. I also share Billy Collins’ poem “The Trouble with Poetry.”
    But mostly poetry fills me
    with the urge to write poetry,
    to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame to appear at the tip of my pencil.

    And along with that, the longing to steal,
    to break into the poems of others
    with a flashlight and a ski mask.

    And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
    cut-purses, common shoplifters,
    I thought to myself
    as a cold wave swirled around my feet
    and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
    which is an image I stole directly
    from Lawrence Ferlinghettti—
    to be perfectly honest for a moment—

    • Linda Hambro says:

      I loved your playful and irreverent – and honest – respond to Bishops cadid essay. A pleasant relief from the sanctimonious and self righteous comments above. Makes me want to write.

  4. K Catalona says:

    I feel like I’m waiting for the punch line. Lifting whole sentences from someone else’s poetry, repeatedly, is blatant plagiarism. Did you seriously give her an A???

  5. Jay says:

    No wonder the young are so entitled. This justification is cowardice in disguise.

  6. David says:

    She felt distraught and new she had been treading on dangerous ground, but (and sorry if I missed this) what was her intent?

    I mean, obviously it was to use other poets’ words and lines, but did she intend to try and pass these things off as purely her own, or to be in conversation with these works and just screwed up because she feared “the risk of being condemned”?

    This is to say nothing of centos and other poems that use source texts (along with erasures, as you mention) in which whole forms utilize nothing but previously adopted language and ideas.

    Anyway, I agree with the author of this post that it’s complicated in any case.

    • Sean Bishop says:

      Hey David: yes, the question of intent is an important one, and I’m sorry I didn’t go deeper into that here, since it was kind of a tertiary point to the essay, although it was totally fundamental to my decision to give her an A.

      Basically, this student had learned to write poetry in a class where the entire goal was to mimic other poets, as a way of flexing different poetic muscles. But because of my own oversight in that course (and this is something I’ll certainly change if I teach it again—it’s how and why I was culpable for this student’s plagiarism), I hadn’t devoted a ton of time to discerning what’s appropriate for the classroom versus in publishing generally, or in what contexts sampling other poets’ work would and wouldn’t be okay in the publishing world. And because we didn’t discuss published imitations, we didn’t have an in-depth discussion about how directly or indirectly one needs to engage with a source text for it to be acceptable as “original” work.

      That is to say, this student didn’t know for certain that she was doing anything wrong, and because she was a very shy and quiet student, she was afraid to ask for fear that she was doing something wrong. But it was neither that she was “trying to pass it off as her own” nor was she “in conversation with” the works from which she borrowed, exactly. She had learned to write poetry in a context where everything was permissable so long as it was not outright, 100% theft, and so the question of intention had never really come into play. This total-permission, I think, is what helped her to develop skills that she might not have developed in a more traditional, everything-should-be-original classroom context.

      But she didn’t understand that in a thesis context, which is sort of the moment you cease to be a pure student of poetry and become a contributor to the big poetry world, she needed to be much more careful about how she sampled and borrowed from other poets. Because I had played a role in her not understanding this, and because she did work her ass off to “fix” the thesis as best she could, and because I think the distinction between what’s appropriate for work in-a-class versus what’s appropriate for work in-a-thesis is pretty arbitrary, I ultimately gave her the A.

  7. Jessica says:

    I think those of you who are getting hung up on “PLAGIARISM!” are missing the point. This aspiring poet took snippets of other people’s poetry and successfully put them into a new context by purposefully arranging them around her own work. Her work wasn’t trying to achieve the same goals as the work she “copied.” It’s clear that she had a unique creative vision, and I think it is a mistake to hold creative writing to the same “academic standards” as you would, say, a research paper. Please read this Lethem essay (http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387) if you don’t believe writers/artists have been doing this kind of thing forever. If anything, this kind of experimentation should be embraced and encouraged.

    • Sean Bishop says:

      Thanks so much for the link, Jessica! One thing I know for sure is that if I ever teach “Influence & Imitation” again, I’ll devote at least one full week’s meeting to the question of authorial ownership, and I think I’ll assign this Lethem essay. Really fantastic.

  8. M. says:

    Those who rally behind literature as free-for-all bricolage without consequence deny the often unseen human cost of taking others’ labor without giving credit—esp when those stolen-from artists aren’t canonized, well-known, or even published. Doing so can cause personal and professional damage.

    If everyone reading the work knows the reference, that’s homage. If you’re pretty sure most people will, that’s stealing. The line’s pretty far up the bar.

    So what if the stealer is skilled, does something great with lesser works? In ethics, ends don’t justify means.

    And why not simply cite? It’s not difficult to do. It elevates everyone.

    The issues and answers in this potential ethical dilemma are simple. So why all the intellectual posturing and justification for an act that could harm another person?

    • Sean Bishop says:

      Hi M. I think that to say my post advocates literature as “free-for-all bricolage” is a pretty extreme exaggeration.

      But I really don’t think you and I are having any kind of disagreement here, when it gets right down to it. The student should not try to publish the poems as-is, especially since some of the borrowed sources are from relatively unknown poets. I was clear with the student on this. I should also say that, before she turned in the final thesis, I told her that she needed to cite any and all instances that she felt might conceivably still be too close to the source. And she did.

      But there’s a very important distinction between writing for the classroom and writing for publication. The objective in a classroom, or for that matter in an undergraduate thesis, is to make the student a better poet. If stealing lines and images from other poets, in the context of the classroom/thesis, will help that student to understand and engage with lyricism, language, and meaning in ways that they may not have been able if every single image and syllable had to be their own, then there’s nothing at all wrong with that, and actually I think there’s quite a bit right with it. Plagiarism becomes a tool, and a device for learning: you copy the syntax and/or rhetoric of another poet as a way of “feeling your way through” a type of poem, in much the same way that musicians must learn to play the music of others before they have any chance of making adequate music of their own. They PLAY the music, they don’t simply LISTEN to it. For an art-maker, the distinction is huge.

      Remember, I called the post “Plagiarism as Pedagogy,” not “Plagiarism is Perfectly Acceptable in the Context of Publishing,” where writers really should err on the side of citation and caution.

      • M. says:

        My opening statement wasn’t indictment of your post, but concern about some thinking it belies. I appreciate the questions you ask; however, in places you do appear to advocate as such, and your final conclusion, an “A” for the girl afraid to come clean because she knew she might be doing something unethical, seems built around guilty justification of an erroneous position, and logical fallacy (is sampling a “risk,” and one that defines “great artists”?)—defenses, rather than inquiry.

        I’ve 16 years formal training in music, and terminal degrees in both poetry and visual art; I now teach in several fields. Visual arts and music students aren’t generally encouraged to copy or incorporate other artists’ work in their own, even in strictly pedagogical contexts. Playing music as an internalization method is akin not to plagiarism, as you suggest, but rather to memorization and oral recitation of poems—an ancient and effective tool in the pedagogy of poetics. Typically works played aren’t by minor unknown composers, but canonized standards. The visual arts parallel is live-sketching a masterwork, usually in minor discrete passages, in a private sketchbook—not represented as part of one’s own work, nor weighted in formal evaluation.

        I’m unconvinced that, as general method, teaching students to create compositions through synthetic methods won’t in the end detract from, rather than support, their later confidence and abilities to form their own ideas and words into larger works. And personally I’m wary of teaching by ethics I can’t clearly grasp.

  9. Donny says:

    This should help answer many questions.

    http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/fair-use/related-materials/codes/code-best-practices-fair-use-poetry

    As other readers have pointed out, centos, erasures, collages, and other types of poetry that have been around for a long time (centuries, for centos) are perfectly acceptable poetic forms, whether they are published or remain unpublished. Yes, the young student should have cited her sources. However, Bishop acknowleges that the poems the student submitted felt new and read like they were her own. He admits that the student’s poems didn’t even address the same subjects as the poems from which she borrowed the lines.

  10. RP Fields says:

    I’m very curious to know whether her rewrite resulted in better poetry.

    Also, what if she had titled the whole thing “A Postmodern Homage” or something like that? Would it have been an ironic masterpiece rather than a near-career-ending disaster? What if she’d been a famous poet near the end of her career, rather than a student?

  11. M. says:

    @Donny, good resource. Under these guidelines, references used in pastiche etc. are referred to as quotations, and the onus is on the poet appropriating to provide attribution in a conventionally appropriate form. Since that really isn’t difficult to do in poetry, why defend and reward those who don’t?

  12. Ty Jones says:

    What seems to be the key here is the notion in the West of the lone genius creating all by themselves. This role is such a recent invention in creativity.

    We don’t talk of plagiarism in Egyptian art or Middle Ages manuscripts. Nor do we speak about it in architecture. Or even music.

    But something happens specific to writing. The question is what. For some reason we feel betrayed. Maybe it is the solitary nature of reading and the emotions it involves.

    All that said, I think you did the right thing.

  13. Adam Preuss says:

    Came across this unexpectedly, and I am definitely not an author…but I think there are some other recent art forms which would be considered plagiarism in other contexts. Much of hip-hop music and the concept of sampling, finding breaks, etc. sounds similar to what this student did. Another example might be some of the stencils someone like Banksy does.

    Is it possible for some of these rules to change over time?…of course it is, but how does that happen from the top down, or the bottom up?

  14. Cervenka says:

    If a musician were to sample other copyrighted works, it wouldn’t matter how original the resulting work was. If he didn’t credit the composers of the sampled works, it’s copyright infringement. If all the student had to do to avoid the original plagiarism charge was to cite her sources, then I don’t think she should have been given the chance for a do-over. She’s far enough along in her academic career that this should have been a no-brainer.

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